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Milford Sound is the best known of New Zealand’s fjords. Relatively easy access through the Murchison Mountains makes for a memorable ride and delivers you to a spectacular fjord that reaches several miles to the Tasman Sea. Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are the two fjords that are accessible along the western coast of New Zealand’s South Island. In both cases there is no north-south road in or out of the sounds (actually fjords or in New Zealand fiords). In visiting Milford you drive from Queenstown (where most people stay) through Te Anau (where some people stay) and into the Fiordland National Park (3 million acres+). The road is a glacial geology lesson with hanging valleys, glaciers, braided streams, and lots of sheer rock walls.
The image at the top of the page show the Eglinton Valley, an old glacially carved pathway in the mountains now filled with, mountain rubble, stone, sands, and silts. It has a layer of soil deep enough to grow grasses and its contrast with the forested mountainside is simply breathtaking. The lower picture (above) is Mirror Lake where standing water, New Zealand flax (Phorium), and the surrounding mountains offer unending photographic opportunities.
Driving on the road amazes and awes (and scares) the traveler as it passes through Nothofagus Forest, along rocky gorges, and through a rather narrow tunnel. Descending to sea level on the western side you will be simply agog at the beauty of these rather young and still growing mountains.
One of the pull-offs that shouldn’t be missed on the way to Milford Sound is the short walk to The Chasm. It is here that you can see the results of persistence and the underestimated power of water. The rocks have been smoothed by water and shaped by smaller stones that have been agitated and swirled by the running stream. There may be a rather large green parrot (Kea) in the parking area – don’t feed it (or them) but do take a picture of this endemic New Zealand bird.
Hanging valleys give you a sense of the glacial tributaries that once flowed into the main glacier that was gouging out the fjord. Picture this from the air – there are small glaciers flowing down hill using and creating their own valleys and eventually running into another glacier coming from another valley; then these two run together downhill. Sooner or later the largest glacier (really an amalgamation of smaller glaciers) reaches the sea and begins to decay in the ocean waters.
We often hope for a blue-sky day so that the greens are greens and the rocks are velvety gray – but rainy days offer a great deal in Fiordland. The ride in to Milford Sound will have hundreds of waterfalls and cascades on a rainy day – the air will be rich in moisture coming in off the ocean and being captured momentarily by the rocky mountains. On a sunny day there are fewer than ten waterfalls along the road or Milford Sound waterway, but in the rain it is alive with water as the images above and below depict. Note the hairpin turn and tourist buses in the lower part of the picture below. The scope is impossible to capture…but this gives you an idea of the majesty of the surroundings.
The Homer Tunnel takes you through as mile or so of very hard rock. It is an area of steep rock cliffs and mountain cirques that hold snow until mid-summer. The tunnel was pretty much hand dug and took decades to build. New Zealand’s South Island is a small rocky place where manpower and money are not abundant. Many of the “projects to nowhere” were often back-burnered and took years and years to complete. There was really no compelling reason to create a road through these mountains to Milford Sound so it was kind of slow-motion construction project. Perhaps if gold had been discovered along the coast things would have been different.
The ride outward toward the sea continues the glacial geology lesson. Here one of the boats passes a waterfall draining a hanging valley – a remnant carved by a long-gone glacier from the Ice Age.
One of the nice things about fjords is that they are often narrow, making the steep walls that much more impressive. Milford weaves a bit as the fresh water end of the valley runs toward the saltier end.
Many of the fjords are rather sterile as far as sea life goes. Fur seals found in the fjords are almost always youngsters unable to hold space in the competitive haul-outs along the outer coast. Dolphins can be present but the fresh water and the layered water of the fjord are less productive than the sea water outside. There is also an off chance that the boat will enter the edge of the Tasman Sea and an albatross or two might be encountered. There are two species of penguins that use the fiords (Little/Blue/Fairy and Fiordland Crested). The crested penguins are seasonal nesters in the area but Little Blues can be seen throughout the year.
Nice views once on the water. Nice views on the ride in and out. Different views if you take a small plane out from the sound. Overall – an experience that you will remember, rain or shine.
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